The tiny coal town of Gilberton has become a spectacle for the nation's gun debate, marshaling dozens of armed gun-rights activists who come to defend the borough's suspended police chief, whose profanity-laced YouTube videos sparked the controversy.
At four meetings in as many months, the backers of Chief Mark Kessler showed their support by packing — they came to disciplinary hearings bristling with semiautomatic rifles and handguns. Several slung rifles over their shoulders, others holstered them on their hips or beneath clothing. Some carried three weapons.
But not anymore.
When one of them dropped a pistol at Thursday night's termination hearing and it landed behind the chief's attorney, borough officials decided to suspend the hearing and continue it later at a place that would put some restrictions on the 2nd Amendment. In agreement with Kessler's attorney, they decided to move the meeting to the Schuylkill County Courthouse, where firearms must be checked at the door.
"It should have been there to begin with because that [borough hall] is not accommodating for something like this," said Joseph Nahas of Frackville, who has represented Kessler at all the disciplinary hearings.
He said the room was too small to fit the media and public who wanted to witness the proceedings, and it was just not safe.
"Mistakes happen all the time with firearms, and to have one happen in this particular room made of concrete and steel could be fatal for many, many, many people," Nahas said Thursday night.
Since summer, Kessler has become a cause for some gun-rights activists. His YouTube videos have garnered international headlines because of his coarse language and use of the kind of automatic weapons that only law enforcement or people with special federal permits can carry. His raunchy messages often target national leaders who he believes are eroding the 2nd Amendment.
The controversy has also put a spotlight on Gilberton, a borough of about 800 people and 1.5 square miles that generally doesn't make the news. Chartered in 1873, Gilberton lies in the cradle of Pennsylvania's coal mining industry, about halfway between Scranton and Philadelphia.
Nahas has said Kessler employed "Howard Stern" tactics to shock people into listening to his message about gun rights being eroded. Kessler has been an outspoken advocate for gun rights, writing a resolution that says the borough won't recognize state and federal laws that violate the 2nd Amendment.
He has attracted support from across the country and has established a group, the Constitutional Security Force, at http://www.chiefkessler.com.
The Borough Council suspended Kessler in July for unauthorized use of borough-owned guns and moved to terminate him as the end of his suspension neared. The grounds for termination focus on his on-duty performance, accusing him of neglecting his official duties and being insubordinate by publicly trashing the Borough Council and the mayor.
Mayor Mary Lou Hannon was under cross-examination over those charges Thursday when the gun fell from the holster of a man wearing an American flag bandanna, a Constitutional Security Force T-shirt and a bullet dangling from a chain around his neck. The man, identified as David Zimmerman by the Patriot News of Harrisburg, was standing directly behind Nahas and Kessler.
Kessler bent down to pick up the gun and handed it to the man, saying, "It's just not right."
"It wasn't in the chamber," Zimmerman replied, referring to a bullet.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun